The etching titled Anatomical Head (catalogue cover image) has served as a personal reference point from which to trace the developments in Kiki Smith's work. It somehow functions as an anchor that connects the seemingly stark differences in the representations of the human body produced by Kiki Smith from the early nineties up to the recent years.
The highly realistic and detailed anatomical illustration of the muscular structure of a head is reminiscent of Renaissance scientific drawings that were produced by Leonardo da Vinci, although Kiki Smith's lacks the intense curiosity or urge to accurately record observations. The head also calls to mind nineteenth century photographs of anthropometric studies that belong to the disciplines of medicine or anthropology of human types. This is to say that there is an ambiguous sense of classicism in Anatomical Head that is rather theatrical; it harks back to Kiki Smith's earlier clinical approach to the interior of the human body, as well as her more recent symbolic and religious renditions of traditional figurative sculpture. Her gruesome body art has been tempered with a broader repertoire of imagery, ranging from the human body to animals and the cosmos, and her work has become spiritual, disturbing at moments, but always powerful.
Kiki Smith began working with human anatomy as early as 1979, and by the early eighties was living in New York, showing at white Columns, Artists Space and PSI, and several commercial galleries. Following her first solo show at Fawbush Gallery in 1988, Kiki Smith had a show in the Projects exhibition space at the Museum of Modern Art in 1990 and this quickly led to one of the most impressive careers in contemporary art and a reputation as a controversial and compelling woman artist.
Her personal interest in the human body was quite unique and seems to have been closely influenced by her experiences of illness and death in the family, Her father, the sculptor of Minimalist monumental work, Tony Smith died in 1982 and again her sister's death from AIDS in 1988 led to the production of some of Kiki smith's most somber and disturbing pieces. Such personal experiences were again attuned to the preoccupations of the art world that proclaimed "the return of the body", and post-feminist representations of the abject and diseased body at times of the AIDS crisis, homophobia and abortion controversy.
Kiki Smith's earlier work presented the body dramatically staged in powerful installations, as well as subject to clinical explorations into the processes and failures of the body. The artist remarks about her work from this phase that; "It is physically very beautiful to look at the exposure of the insides and the outsides at the same time. Most people don't have a visual relationship with their inrernal organs."
Kiki Smith produced sculptures of internal organs, creating a series of unprecedented imagery that was quite startling to look at outside the body-frame as autonomous objects. Digestive System(1988) is a cast iron wall hanging sculpture of the intestinal tract; and Untitled(1986) consists of twelve glass jars that are placed on a low wall and labeled with antique Gothic type face that each refers to a bodily fluid, such sa sweat, blood, vomit etc. She crafted entrails out handmade paper, rib cages from plaster, produced a transparent womb and hundreds of miniature sperm pieces from cast glass.
In 1987 Kiki Smith first attempted to represent a whole figure of a simplified baby in bronze, which was based on medieval carvings of baby Jesus that were placed on a high pedestal, altar like, as an object of devotion. The result was a figure which was shown at a police administration building as part of a public art program in Berlin. The figure was directly facing the site of the adjacent Spandau Prison which han been occupide alone by a Nazi officer since World WarⅡ. Thus the child looks through the window of the exhibition space into the prison, and it also witnessed the demolition of the prison building. The sculpture embodied references to Catholic statuary, and placed within a specific context served as a moral gesture symbolizing love, purity and mercy.
Another important example of the artist's figurative sculpture was shown at the 1991 Whitney Bienale of a pair of life size wax figures each marked by a white leak that stains the body; semen seeping onto the man's leg and milk trickling down the woman's breasts. These figures were held in mid-ari by metal stands under the arms with their heads drooping and feet dangling and hovering-seemingly tragic, epic almost, the raw fleshed sexes appear almost like martyrs or victims of great physical suffering.
The use of sculptural material is another important aspect in overviewing Kiki Smith's work as she has been successful working with more ephemeral materials such as paper and wax in representations of the body. The artist notes that wax or paper are more malleable and more closely mimic the nature of human skin. And as a favored material Kiki Smith has been exceptionally versatile in her use of paper, which she has used as both picture ground for her many prints and drawings, as sculptural material, and also used creatively as backdrop for installations. In Philandelphia and again at the Clocktower in New York in 1990 she suspended a collection of men sculpted with paper from the ceiling of the gallery and hung large sheets of paper saturated with blood red paints onto the walls. The weightless men, ghostly figures, loom above the viewers' heads in a haunting installation that pays tribute to the victims of AIDS.
However, she more often depicted females in her paper sculptures. The anonymous female figures leak and spill as the female body is represented as unstable, a vessel that cannot be contained from which things naturally fall out as in Pee Body(1992) and Tale (1992). The female body is in a state of constant change and flux which relates to the cycles and processes of reproduction-giving birth, nurturing, menstruating.
In regards to her work with bronze, Kiki Smith has noted on several occasions that bronze is a difficult material to work with for it is not generous, and is hard and resistant-that it does not mimic the body. But she has been adamant about criticism that her work has been more successful using paper, and more increasingly she has demonstrated her love of bronze by creating her key works in bronze, such as the figure of Virgin Mary(1993) that shows the flayed body with muscles exposed and inlaid with silver veins; and Mary Magdalene(1993) represented naked with coarse hair covering the body and chains around her ankles which reflect the references in early German art as a wild woman of early Christianity.
These figures were shaped by her interest in medieval and Gothic representations of the body in the Catholic religion, and especially the identification of the body of women as more susceptible to mythical visions, to magic and supernatural forces, compared to later protestant teachings that segregated the body as base matter and the cause of sin. Thus in many of the artist's female images the body is expressive of divinity and nature. The bronze female figure titled Spring is an embodiment of the rebirth of nature and celebration of new life through the figure of a young adolescent female. Woman's body becomes the carrier of meaning and spirituality. Catholicism has been an important source for Kiki Smith's work and the artist has talked about the importance of religion, not so much as a practiced faith, but as an alternative source of undetstanding the visual representations of ideas and sypbolism through the body.
One of the things about Catholicism is, it's religion that's about making things physical, about taking emotional and spiritual ideas and making them physical. Catholicism uses a body model or image to address the spiritual condition...All the major mysteries of Catholicism' the Immaculate Conception, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Christ's Ascension and Assumption of the Virgin Mary emphasize the role of the human body as a vessel of divine spirit.
The conventions and iconography of religious statuary was also evident in her show at pace Wildenstein Gallery in 1995 where one of the female figures with extended arms was based on conventional representations of Christ descending the cross. This powerful iconography is also repeated in the large bronze sculpture titled Woman on Pyre. Tiny, fragile hands reach out with dissipated energy from a body whose torso is aged, worn, and damaged. Her small head gently tilts back to gaze into the viewer's space, and the face and poise are expressive of spiritual redemption, suffering, and humility. The funeral pyre is also an effective compositonal component that acts as a pedestal that raises the figure above ground to the viewer's eye level, but it also has powerful connotations; death, burial rituals, witch burning. It also has references to classical mythology which mentions that Dido, the legendary queen of Carthage, died on a funeral pyre, and that Hercules built a pyre to stage his own death. The pathos in the Woman on Pyre is carried over onto the series of face drawings titled Still(Woman on Pyre). Consisting of nine drawings with touches of color, the sequence of images form a panoramic backdrop for the sculpture. The series of faces look ageless, anonymous, and androgynous that are expressive of compassion, sorrow, and melancholy.
The series of drawings titled play in the exhibition alludes to the Old Testament. The large sized drawings on heavily crumpled paper surfaces depict a figure that is half woman, half reptile in various postures in relationship to a tree and an apple. The image of Eve, as both tempress and victim of temptation, playfully reaches for the apple in one drawing and gently fondles the apple in another. The delicate face of a young woman abuts against the robust lower body of a serpent/reptile. It is a visually dramatic juxtapositoin of woman and beast and also suggestive of opposite notions of sin vs. innocence, ugly vs. beauty, and man vs nature.
Kiki Smith has produced eclectic female images from religious and mythological figures from the Old Testament, Greek mythology, Celtic folklore, and Egyptian cosmology. Smith portrays them as figures defiant of human nature, supernatural and touched by the fantastic.
For example, the bronze figure titled, Siren is a gripping renditon of the mythological figure that was half woman, half bird, and said to be the daughter of the Muses. Siren lived on an island and sang so sweetly that any man sailing by was fatally drawn to her singing, and remained to hear the music forver. It was said that Siren was surrounded by the white ashes from the bones of sailors. She is thus represented as a dark figure that folds its body into a tight unit as if drawing its energy to emit beautiful music as she gently cups both hands towards her mouth to direct her singing towards the viewer. The fragile body contrasts the powerfully sculpted head with its haunting, aged face.
It is a mythological figure, bridging the human and animal worlds, embodying both unearthly beauty and death, a fragile yet powerful creature.
Another example in Kiki Smith's repertoire of mythological female figures is the figure of Nuit, an Egyptian goddess of the sky, which first appeared in 1993 at her show at MAK(The Austrian Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna and the artist later produced several versions of this goddess figure. Nuit is often depicted as a long limbed woman arched over the earth. She is said to swallow the sun each night and give birth to it again in the morning. Nuit is an interesting figure through which Kiki Smith represents the analogy between the female body as giver of life. And the artist also explaints that the idea of a woman/goddess as creator of the sun, earth, and stars is in accord with the creation myths of how man has constructed the world in his own image, of how man has configured the natural world and the cosmos according to the framework of his own corporeal being. This probably explains the large installation work titled Stars and Moons which is a single editon work produced solely for the show. The rather fragile body supports a powerful face and this figure is most probably a rendition of Nuit. She is placed on a high pedestal and her body is studded with small stars on her back and behind her legs. Her arms gently reach out towards a distant object, the moons(bronze discs) surrounding her, which are constructed to rotate in their orbits.
While steering away from her earlier work of abjection to express beauty and spirituality, Kiki Smith began to indulge in her love of decoration and craft.
The introduction of a decorative quality in Kiki Smith's work marked a turning point in the artist's output. Her work on the body had reached such levels of intensity that is left little room for artistic experimentation and thus she decided to expand beyond to the animal world and nature. Some of her productions of decorative quality seem almost like Kitsch, but she frankly admits that she enjoys appealing to popular taste. Kiki Smith invites notions of the "decorative" in her work, stating that to be decorative has always been a derogatory criteria to denounce women's art and therefore the decorative should be used more aggressively to counteract the stigma attached to this kind of aesthetic. Her interest in decorative art has allowed the artist to enjoy a greater sense of freedom in both her choice of subject matter.
For instance, the five series of etchings titled Crystals is such a novel image in art. The microscopic vision with which the crystal rock is viewed captures an immense amount of detail along the simple facets and is quite poetic. The series of aquatint etchings in the show titled, Flowers is a rather sweet rendition of a simple composition of three flowers centrally placed on the page.
The Immortal is part of a repertoire of animal images that Kiki Smith has produced. Her interest in animals was triggered by news that crows flying over a cloud of pesticide poisoning fell dead from the sky in New Jersey. This incident led to the artist's comittment to produce a "Noah's ark" of singular animals, as a kind of a death barge and homage to the endangered natural life and the artist has since produced many drawings of mounted of specimen animals.
The selection of Kiki Smith's most recent work creates an intimate experience of the artist's work. The installation of her art creates a powerful environment and the works capture the viewer's gaze, and charges the viewing space. The Mermaid is a small hollow bronze head with a fish tail that is mounted onto the wall. It draws the viewer closer for inspection from the gallery entrance and halts the viewer at mid-range to marvel at the ambiguous haunting face that is powerfully three dimensional, childlike with an innocent smile and chubby cheeks, yet eerie and demonic.
In representations of the human body, and most often the female body, Kiki Smith's work has expanded beyond the autobiographical which characterizes the work on body and gender produced by many women artists. Although her work has been referred to as "difficult" and controversial, her recent procuctions have become accessible to many as the breath and scope of her references have reached outside the idiosyncratic towards profoundly human and unversal experiences and narratives.
Director of Kukje Gallery Roe Jae-ryung